Time running out for Israel on Ukraine

Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett  credit: Emil Salman - Haaretz
Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett credit: Emil Salman - Haaretz

Nervous as it is about upsetting Russia, which has military control of Syria, Israel will ultimately have to come into line with the West.

Israel's leadership is finding it difficult to decide what diplomatic steps to take in connection with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and it is thereby causing dissatisfaction, to put it mildly, on the part of the Americans. On Friday, Israel refrained from seconding the draft US resolution in the UN Security Council condemning the invasion and calling on Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine. To put that in perspective, close to 90 countries did join the US motion. As expected, Russia's veto defeated it, but even China abstained and did not oppose it. Israel did not respond to the US motion until it was actually submitted to the Security Council.

The motion will now go to the UN General Assembly, in which all countries participate. Alongside Russia in opposing it will be Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, and other countries of that kind. On the other side will stand all the democratic Western countries, and dozens more from Africa and Asia. Nevertheless, Israel has still not decided whether to join this block. In 2014 too, there was a similar dilemma when a motion to condemn Russia's occupation of the Crimean peninsula was brought before the UN General Assembly, and Israel abstained. The situation now is substantially different: Russia is carrying out a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, including attacks on its capital and other cities, and the enlightened world is united in opposing it and condemning it.

An Israeli diplomatic source told "Globes" that Israel would try as much as possible to avoid straining its relations with Russia, and that messages are being exchanged all the time between Jerusalem and Moscow. The hope is that the fighting will end before the need arises to take a clear stance. He refused to answer the question whether this conduct was harming relations with the US, and said that the frequency of communications with Washington had increased, amid what he described as "mutual understanding."

The debate among Israel's political leadership on the crisis in Ukraine continued until after the invasion itself on Thursday morning. Once it was happening, Israel had no choice, and after consultation with the US, EU countries, and the UK, it had to come into line.

The condemnation by Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid was clear, even if not in the harshest terms in the diplomatic lexicon. "The Russian attack on Ukraine is a serious violation of the international order. Israel condemns that attack, and is ready and prepared to offer humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian citizens. Israel is a country that has known wars. War is not the way to resolve disputes," Lapid said. In the wake of this statement, Israel's ambassador in Moscow Alex Ben Zvi was summoned for clarifications at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov told him that he invasion was justified and that Ukraine was governed by a Nazi regime.

The wording of Lapid's statement came after much discussion concerning, on the one hand, the need to come into line with Israel's allies, chief among them the US, but also European countries with which Israel has extensive military, security, and intelligence cooperation. There is also the moral issue of standing up for the side that has been attacked without real provocation. More broadly, if it does not take such a moral stance and condemn the invasion, how can Israel afterwards demand that the world should condemn those who attack it, from Iran to Hezbollah to Hamas, and should take action against them?

Before Lapid's statement, several government ministers thought that Israel should sit on the fence, and not annoy Putin and damage Israel's complicated relations and interests with Russia. The condemnation took these ministers by surprise. Before it, the prime minister's bureau had called on them not to make public statements on the fighting.

In a speech at the end of an officer training course at the IDF's Training Base 1 on Thursday afternoon, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett issued no condemnation, and Russia was not mentioned. The prime minister only expressed sorrow at the suffering of civilians and readiness to offer humanitarian aid.

Why the backtracking? Israel assigns decisive importance to Russia's control of Syria and the freedom of action that the Russians give it there. The Russian army maintains advanced air defense systems in Syria that could seriously disturb Israeli planes attacking Iranian targets and Hezbollah bases and arms dumps in the country.

There is also the economic question. Israel's trade with Russia is extensive and growing. About half of Israel's imported wheat comes from Russia (another 30% comes from Ukraine). Russia is a very big export destination for Israeli agricultural produce, while Israeli technology companies are cooperating more and more with Russian companies and investors. All this will be put in danger when Israel has to join Western sanctions against Russia, and it will not be able to avoid that.

Israel's attempt to sit on the fence has also been justified by its advantage as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine as a neutral party. According to leaks from sources in Israel, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has requested Bennett to convey a proposal for negotiations to Putin. Bennett, according to journalist Barak Ravid, made an offer to Putin to act as a mediator at their meeting three months ago at Sochi, but Putin rejected the offer.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on February 27, 2022.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2022.

Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett  credit: Emil Salman - Haaretz
Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett credit: Emil Salman - Haaretz
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